Fairs and circus history
This month, October 2008, we're looking at two of the collections
held at the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield.
There are photos
from the collections and also links
to selected websites and some suggested reading about fairs and circus and fairground history.
Airey collection contains a large number of circus programmes
both British and international and include examples of Billy Smart and
Robert Bros. circuses among others. There are programmes from touring
shows which travelled the length and breadth of the UK and also from circuses
in permanent structures such as the Blackpool Tower circus. The programmes
date from the early 1940s until early 2000 and list a variety of acts
that graced the circus ring, showing the change and development as the
October 11th, or the Friday nearest to it is the official date for Hull
Fair, the biggest and one of the oldest fairs in Europe.
For two weeks, the streets of Hull are taken over by a huge amount of
rides and stalls. In the 18th century the fair was dominated by jugglers,
theatrical booths and puppet shows while from the early 19th century the
famous Wombwell Menagerie show appeared, which introduced the people of
Hull to their first sights of wild animals. The introduction of mechanisation
in the 1870s brought new life to the fair and in a period when many historic
fairs were lost with the passing of the Fairs Act in 1871, the people
of Hull remained loyal to their annual feast. During the 1800s the fair
was held at a variety of locations ranging from the Market Place to Brown
Cow Field outside the town; it eventually moved to Park Street in 1865
on the Corporation Field. In 1888 Hull Fair moved to its present home
on Walton Street, with the original site doubling in size in 1906 to sixteen
acres, making it the largest fair in England at that time.
The last century has seen many changes at Hull Fair with each year bringing
new and wondrous delights for those who attend the annual carnival. Fashions
come and go on the fairground with the showpeople keeping one step ahead
of their competitors and vying with each other to bring the latest attraction
to the October Fair.
The National Fairground Archive
commenced a major project documenting the history of the Hull
Fair from the point of view of the local people and the showmen
- Jane Donaldson, Senior Library Assistant,
National Fairground Archive, The University of Sheffield.
Images copyright © Surrey History Centre; Jack Leeson; Heather Hughes;
National Fairground Archive. All courtesy of the National Fairground Archive
These are links to larger images and additional information.
- The Malcolm
Airey Collection contains a large number of circus programmes
from both the UK and Europe including Billy Smart and Belle Vue.
- The Hull
Fair Project was conducted with funding from The Heritage
Lottery Fund (HLF) and contains many images which are available to view
in the reading room.
Dever: a collection of over 300 photographs of rides, engines,
shows and acts from a variety of fairs and shows.
- Jack Leeson:
over 11,000 photographs and negatives, both collected and taken by Leeson,
and notebooks with detailed lists of every fair visited.
White: collection of digitised photographs of Scottish
Houghton (1881-1913): playwirght whose most famous work
Hindle Wakes, 1912, has been filmed several times; the story
includes a trip to Blackpool.
- National Fairground
Archive: inaugurated by the Vice Chancellor of the University of
Sheffield in 1994, with the support of the Showmen's Guild of Great
Britain and the Fairground Association of Great Britain. Housed in the
Western Bank Library, it is a unique collection of photographic, printed,
manuscript and audiovisual material covering all aspects of the culture
of travelling showpeople, their organisation as a community, their social
history and everyday life; and the artefacts and machinery of fairgrounds.
- Hull Fair Project:
conducted with funding from The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and contains
many images which are available to view in the reading room (University
all classes: a series of events based upon research about the history
of fairground, music hall, circus and sea-side entertainments (Blackpool,
- The Belle
Vue archives: are held at Chetham's Library, Manchester
- Circus Friends
Association: founded in 1934 to "stimulate and foster enthusiasm
for reputable circus as a popular entertainment"
- The Fairground Association
of Great Britain: founded in 1978, and the UK's
leading club for fairground enthusiasts.
- Showmen's Guild
of Great Britain: founded in 1899 to protect the interests of travelling
showmen who gain their livelihoods by attending funfairs.
Fairground Heritage Centre: fairground history: exhibits, vintage engineering and stunning
artwork displays (Lifton, Devon)
- Hollycombe Steam Collection:
unique collection of working steam-powered attractions (Hollycombe,
are provided to records on Copac for these items. Copac
is the free, web based national union catalogue, containing the holdings
of many of the major university and National Libraries in UK and Ireland
plus a number of special libraries. For more information about accessing
items see the FAQs
on the Copac website.
- Ferris wheels: an illustrated history by Norman D. Anderson,
- Fairground Architecture by David Braithwaite, 1968.Records
- Fairground strollers and showfolk by Frances Brown, 2001.
- "Come to the fair": The story of British fairgrounds
and the showmen who attend them by F. C. Roope, 1961. Records
- A History of the Circus by George Speaight, 1980. Records
- Vintage funfairs: amusement rides, carousels and fairground art
by Brian Steptoe, 2002. Records
- Victorian Arena: The Performers by John Turner, 1995. Records
- Hull Fair - fun for all: an illustrated history of Hull Fair
in the 20th century by Vanessa Toulmin, 1999. Records
- Pleasurelands, a history of fairgrounds by Vanessa Toulmin,
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